50 Reasons to Love Toronto: No. 20, A Star story prompted 30 grand for Haiti relief

50 Reasons to Love Toronto: No. 20, A Star story prompted 30 grand for Haiti relief

No.20, A Star story about Lovely Avelus prompted readers to donate 30 grand for Haiti relief
(Image: Lucas Oleniuk/Getstock)

When the Haitian earthquake hit late on a Tuesday afternoon in January 2010, two-year-old Lovely Avelus was watching cartoons. Six days later, sniffer dogs discovered Lovely under two layers of rubble. Though deep in shock, she somehow bore no cuts or broken bones.

A week after the rescue, Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter heard about Lovely from a volunteer aid worker and decided to write about her. Lovely’s parents Rosemene and Enel, poor before the quake, were now destitute. Their one-room apartment was destroyed, and they were living in a metal hut smaller than a janitor’s closet. During the frequent rainstorms, sheets of water swept across the dirt floor. Porter wrote of a “moody, stubborn, loud, demanding” little girl with the “dark brooding eyes of a world-weary grandmother.” The child’s tale was one of death, misery and bare survival.

Porter decided to sponsor the Aveluses using her own money, giving Rosemene $600 to get the family back on its feet and covering Lovely’s school costs for two years. “I want her to be a teacher,” Lovely’s mother said. “Or a doctor. Or a minister. I want her to be a better person than I am.” Porter felt giving an education to only one neighbourhood child would cause tension, so she also paid the tuition of two other little girls. Last year, in an article about Lovely, Porter described how she had sponsored the family, and almost instantly readers began to send in donations. “We live in a CNN culture of 24-hour horror, and I saw the raw hunger readers have in wanting to do something, anything, to help,” she says. “People sent money, and I wrote back saying I can’t take charge of funds or issue tax receipts. But they insisted.” Porter’s readers were wary of donating to relief organizations and believed she would do what was best. They sent $17,000 in the first two months. In response, the Star set up a special web page telling the story of the Avelus family and directing people to various bona fide charities.

On a visit to Haiti this past January, her eighth in 12 months, Porter enrolled nine children in one school, funded supplies for another, where she had already placed 30 children, and paid a year’s worth of salaries for eight teachers who taught at a large refugee camp—all using funds donated by Star readers. Money is still trickling in to Porter herself, a total of $27,000 to date.

One of journalism’s basic tenets is that a reporter must only bear witness to history, not determine how it unfolds. Credibility requires distance, and a good writer will discover the heart of a story but never interfere. “I know we aren’t supposed to change the story,” Porter says. “But to do nothing would have been corrosive to my soul. I couldn’t simply be a receptacle for the horror. I needed to respond.” So did Torontonians.